Monday, 7 April 2014

WrestleMania XXX review

I realised a few hours before WrestleMania XXX that I was looking forward to the card as a whole more than I could remember looking forward to any WrestleMania card in years. There was the Triple H and Bryan match, the likelihood of Bryan advancing to the main event and winning the title, The Shield having their second united outing on the show, The Streak match I’d wanted to see since Brock Lesnar returned to WWE, and a battle royal I felt had a lot of potential for some fun nonsense.

There were a fair number of storylines with months of work behind them and one of the most passionate wrestling crowds there will be anywhere all year. There was, I thought, a real chance to could end up being one of the more memorable WrestleManias, perhaps even coming close to toppling WrestleMania X7 as my personal fave. Even if that didn’t happen, it could still be a significant event for WWE, a turning point for many.

The evening’s festivities kicked off with a live pre-show, broadcast on YouTube and (presumably) the WWE Network. It featured the four-way tag team title match. Jimmy and Jey Uso defended against RybAxel, Los Matadores and The Real Americans. Everyone was wearing new gear, and Ryback and Axel had new music. 'The Big Guy' was dressed in red and yellow. He must be a Hogan fan. Or maybe he was trying to get people talking about a match between him and 'The Hulkster'. If so it didn’t work. I think his time in the spotlight is done.

This would not be the most impressive part of Cesaro's evening.
The match was fast and wild. Everyone got their moment to shine, as predicted. Even El Torito, who performed a dive (that was only partially botched) from the turnbuckle to a gaggle of bodies outside the ring. A large portion of the match was dedicated to Cesaro and Swagger tangling with the Usos after the other teams had been eliminated. Ultimately 'The Swiss Superman' would fall to a double splash from the champs following an energetic sequence that the live crowd ate up.

After the match Swagger shouted at his teammate and briefly slapped on the ankle lock. Zeb broke that up and demanded the two shake handsa. Cesaro looked to the crowd, who chanted "No!", before taking Swagger down and giving him a Big Swing (something which had only been teased during the match. That got a good reaction, as did his use of the "We the people" pledge before leaving the ring. That's too good and too over to leave with heels or be abandoned altogether. Rejigging it as a Cesaro face thing would be a good call.

There was a pause of a few minutes between the pre-show ending and the event proper beginning. Old footage reworked into a street carnival. The event’s opening video package featured old WrestleMania footage spliced into a street carnival in a New Orleans street. Austin was shown celebrating a title win stood in a throng of people and Shawn Michaels ziplined across the street on a journey to nowhere in particular. It was well done but a bit peculiar. In fairness I don’t know what else they could have done.

After the obligatory nonsense intro from Cole (this year's tag line is “WrestleMania: then, now forever”) Hulk Hogan was introduced. Hogan reminded us he was at the first WrestleMania and that he and Mr T won the main event. He also referred to the Silverdome. Twice, then corrected himself and acknowledged he was actually in the Superdome. He was, he said, distracted thinking about body slamming Andre the Giant. I’ve lost count of the number of times he’s mentioned that since he came back. He seems to think about nothing else.

Ten years ago this could have been quite the draw.
As Hogan talked about WrestleMania Moments™ glass broke and 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin marched out to provide another one. The crowd went nuts for him. Austin started out by jokingly referring to the Silverdome before moving on to more serious business of giving the audience the chance to chant "What?" and putting Hogan over for everything he’d accomplished in and done for the business. It was a special moment., certainly one that qualifies as something uniquely “WrestleMania”.

And then The Rock joined them.

'The Great One' got in on the Silverdome gag too, then said that he was in the ring with not just two of the best ever but also his buddy and his childhood hero. Rock cut a decent-if-you-like-that-kinda-thing rhyming couplet promo about babies being conceived because of WrestleMania excitement before the three ran through their segment ending catchphrases and shared a beer. It was a great way to start the show and helped to distinguish WrestleMania as special as a WWE pay-per-view but also special among the ‘Mania pantheon.

Daniel Bryan versus Triple H was the first match of the supercard. The video package for the match focused not just on Bryan's rise to the top and problems with The Authoruty bit also his career-long drive to be the best, with footage from the beginning of his career (taken from an early stint working under a developmental contract) being used very effectively. It did an excellent job of explaining why Daniel Bryan is so well liked by fans. Which proves WWE do understand his appeal. It ended with footage of Bryan leading a "Yes!" chant on RAW as Triple H said there was no Yes Movement.

Is that Jillian Hall?
Stephanie McMahon provided an in-ring introduction for Triple H, who this year combined some of his previous entrances by sitting on a throne wearing a gold mask in front of Castle Grayskull. Three blondes were on hand to help remove his headgear (which Steph seemed fine with) as classical music played. Then he made his usual entrance to Motörhead. The crowd cheered him and chanted his name, respectful of his accomplishments presumably.

Bryan's entrance was less overblown. He simply came out in a T-shirt with a towel and yessed his way down the aisle. The crowd helped make it feel special though. They were really into him and a sea of Yes placards could be seen when he stepped into the ring.

After an electric flurry in the opening moments the pace slowed, Bryan taking the initiative and out wrestling 'The Game'. They headed out of the ring fairly quickly, D-Bry leaping off the top rope to take out the COO. Trips took control with an arm bar takedown on the announce desk, then working over the already injured arm. This included a crossface chicken wing and a Crippler crossface.

Daniel Bryan flies on to the WWE COO.
After absorbing punishment for several minutes Bryan made a comeback, hitting 'The King of Kings' with kicks, punches and a series of German suplexes. Tripper put a stop to that with a tiger suplex. A trip to the top rope resulted in Bryan hitting a sunset bomb. The multiple running drop kicks followed that, though it didn't last long as Tripper cut Bryan off with a lariat on the third. Bryan reversed a Pedigree attempt and scored with his KO kick. The flying headbutt was countered with a raised knee and then Triple H reapplied the Crippler crossface.

Bryan stayed in the hold for close to a minute before slipping out and applying the Yes lock to 'The Cerebral Assassin'. That was a lengthy application too, Triple H only escaping the hold when he reached the ropes. His decision to slip outside of the ring proved ill-advised as Bryan followed him out with a suicide dive. Back in the ring he hit a top rope drop kick and blasted a kneeling Triple H with a series of kicks.

Triple H countered the running knee with a spinebuster and immediately followed up with a Pedigree. That proved to be a convincing false finish as the audience erupted when Bryan kicked out. A sneaky small package wasn't enough to get Bryan a win. Trips tried a pedigree again but Bryan flipped into a pinning predicament and then dead weighted to avoid another attempt made at the move. Trips dropped knees on his foe then attempted his finish again but wound up taking a running knee for a clean Bryan victory.

After the match Triple H held his head in his hands at ringside as Bryan led a chant in the ring. Stephanie joined him and pummelled him with slaps, which he laughed off, and then Triple H hit him from behind. He wrapped Bryan's injured arm around a ring post and then left with Steph, promising there would be no happy ending as he posed at the top of the aisle.

The New Age Outlaws were the first men out for the second match. Road Dogg's shtick was interrupted by The Shield's entrance (which may have been a time constraint thing). Any hopes for another great 'Hounds of Justice' outing were disappointed as they made short work of their foes, defeating them in just under three minutes. They hit all their top spots (Reigns’ Superman punch and spear, Rollins’ crazy energetic flying, and Ambrose’s deliberately ugly take downs and punches) and won with a triple power bomb on both Outlaws at the same time.

The short length could be seen as disappointing but I think it was a good call. The Shield should be able to make short work of anyone at this point. There are other matches in their back catalogue for anyone who wants to watch them wrestle lengthy six mans. That wasn’t what this match was about. It was about showcasing what an excellent team they make.

Backstage Sergeant Slaughter, Jim Duggan and Ricky Steamboat had their toys taken away by Ted DiBiase. Then Ron Simmons entered and said damn. Someone somewhere found it hilarious. Probably Vince McMahon.

The battle royal went on third. There were more than thirty participants. It was basically the entire roster who didn’t have a match elsewhere, minus Bad News Barrett. Even David Otunga was in there. There were, however, no special guests. While that hadn’t been confirmed the fact that WWE had gone out of their way to state there would be thirty entrants and only announced twenty-seven made it same as if some significant names would appear. I wasn’t disappointed by the development. More surprised.

Yoshi Tatsu was the first man eliminated. Kofi Kingston got a Royal Rumble style spot when he was launched over a turnbuckle by Cesaro and landed on the steel steps, avoiding elimination by not letting his feet touch the floor. It was inventive but looked incredibly dangerous. When it happened I thought Kofi had been seriously injured.

The final four were Big Show, Cesaro, Sheamus and Alberto Del Rio. ‘Great White’ and ADR eliminated each other, leaving Cesaro along with ‘The Giant’. After avoiding a few elimination attempts Cesaro scooped him up and slammed him out of the ring for the victory. It was a simple idea but a stunning feat of strength from Cesaro. The trophy he was presented required five men to get it into the ring. Cesaro hoisted it up singlehanded. Like a boss.

The video package for Wyatt v Cena focused on Cena being a popular man who's considered a hero and Wyatt wanting to end his legacy (which could apparently be achieved by beating him in a match). It was good but not a patch on the Triple H and Bryan video.

Star entrance treatment?
Wyatt got star entrance treatment. First a woman performed what was probably a voodoo ritual (hey, New Orleans is about more than parties) and got played to the ring by Mark Crozer and his band. Members of the band were wearing seventeenth century plague masks, which were eerie and a beautiful fit for the Wyatt character. Wyatt himself was sporting a new black hat and a brown leather coat. He mostly heard cheers when he blew his lantern out and the music cut.

Cena got his regular entrance and heard boos. Which was fine. There's not a huge amount that can be done with his mad dash to the ring and he's had some distinct ones at ‘Mania over the years. Wyatt warranted the special treatment more and has a character that lends itself to something a bit different.

The story of the match was that Wyatt wanted to turn Cena into a monster and expose him as a fraud to people. That could have been made clearer in his promos leading up to the show but at least the commentary team did a decent job of getting it across. Cena began by refusing to attack a kneeling Wyatt and was driven to acts of excessive aggression during the course of the match, including wielding steel steps and chairs (he always chose not to use them against his opponent). Whenever Cena stopped to consider his actions 'The Eater of Worlds' regained control.

Air Cena.
There were several memorable moments during this match. Cena managing to set Wyatt up for a Five Knuckle Shuffle only to be freaked out by Wyatt’s crab walk; Wyatt countering Cena’s top rop leg drop into a power bomb; Wyatt performing a DDT on the apron; the audience signing He's Got the Whole World in His Hands; and Cena leaping off the top rope to the outside to wipe out Harper and Rowan were among my favourites. Wyatt was also permitted to kick out of an AA and survive an STF. In return Cena kicked out of Sister Abigail, but that was always going to happen.

The finish saw Wyatt hand Cena a chair and ask to be finished, telling him to be a monster. Cena did use the chair, but on Erick Rowan. Wyatt snuck in with a rollup, which felt like the finish, but Cena kicked out. The pair botched a Sister Abigail, which Cena slipped out of anyway, and then Wyatt got blasted with an AA for the Cena victory.

It was a decent match but the wrong result. Cena didn't need to win. Wyatt's career and momentum are not harmed by the loss but they could have been enhanced with a win. Beating Cena in his WrestleMania would have been a wonderful moment for Wyatt. His standing can still increase and he can still get a victory over Cena in a rematch, but WrestleMania was the show that meant more. It’s the company’s premier event, the one watched by more people, and was the first official encounter between the two men.

The Hall of Fame class was brought out onto the stage next. To my ears it sounded like Lita and Scott 'Razot Ramon' Hall got the loudest responses. They would have been the two I’d have cheered for most if I was there, so it’s possible I’m wrong. Maybe Carlos Colon got the biggest response.

Backstage we were shown Daniel Bryan being tended to by a doctor. He was in pain lifting his arm. Underdog, you say?

The Streak video first established that The Streak has been built up over decades and is an impressive feat. Then it switched to Heyman talking about how Lesnar will end it as footage of the handful of meetings between the combatants was shown. It did as good a job as it could it making Lesnar look like a contender but I can't imagine it convinced many people 'The Pain' would be winning.

Witch hunter Undertaker.
Footage of all of 'Taker's 'Mania outings preceded his entrance, accompanied by the familiar Chanting Monks volume 4 soundtrack. When the gong hit 'The Dead Man' ambled onto the stage and posed in the smoke. Then, because he's magic, he opened a casket with 22 written on it by turning his head. Halfway down the aisle he set said casket on fire with a lightning bolt. Again, magic. His outfit had a witch hunter vibe to it, which I dug.

The crowd was completely dead for the first several minutes of the bout. This was not through lack of effort from the competitors. While the action was not as polished or layered as recent Undie matches it was far from bad. The trouble was that people know Streak matches are going to be lengthy affairs and have been conditioned not to respond until the big moves start getting wheeled out.  

Even when it got going the action was far from quick but there as a logic behind it. Unfortunately it was hurt by too much time between signature spots.Lesnar kicked out of choke slam. Undertaker survived F5. Lesnar powered out of the Hell's Gate before 'Taker survived a kimura and then applied the move to Lesnar. Lesnar yanked ‘The Phenom’ down from an old school rope walk into a second F5, which was survived again. Undertaker countered some turnbuckle posing into a Last Ride. Lesnar kicked out of the match’s sole Tombstone (going by things said in other promotions the Louisiana State Athletic Commission was not fond of the piledriver or any variant of it).

And then it happened. Lesnar connected with a third F5 and went for a cover. The referee counted one, two… and three. Just like that, seemingly from out of the blue, The Streak was ended. The audience sat shocked as Lesnar and Heyman sneered at their accomplishment and headed to the back. Watching it live I originally thought the referee had botched the finish somehow. But the reactions of everyone involved told me that wasn’t the case. The decision had been taken to have The Undertaker suffer his first loss at a WrestleMania, twenty-three years after his debut at the event.

Undertaker stood in the ring for several minutes waiting for thank you chants that took an eternity to arrive. It wasn’t that the crowd was unappreciative, they were simply shocked that The Undertaker had lost. Very few people truly expected it to ever come and most of those who did didn’t think it would be this year against Brock Lesnar. There was a wonderful shot from high in the arena as The Undertaker walked to the back. By that point there was a standing ovation.

After an advert for next year’s WrestleMania Michael Cole and Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler moved on to jauntily shilling Kid Rock and next year’s spectacular. It rendered the sombre tones they’d employed during Undertaker’s post-match walk to the back utterly hollow.

The Divas had the difficult task of following the end of The Streak. Vickie Guerrero stood and watched the shambles that ensued from a podium at ringside (it may or may not have been Bad News Barrett’s regular podium redressed). With fourteen wrestlers involved it was never going to be pretty but it would have been better without the loud spot calling from Nikki Bella (she is Cena's girlfriend, I suppose). AJ won with the Black Widow and there was no descent between her and Tamina. The match was the complete filler everyone expected it to be.

Backstage ‘Mean’ Gene Okerlund was joined by Hulk Hogan. 'The Hulkster's' diatribe about WrestleMania XXX (which probably would have led to talk of how he pressed Andre the Giant over his head in 1987) was interrupted by Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff. 'Mr Wonderful', who was sporting a lovely handlebar moustache, claimed that people ask him on a weekly how it feels to be the man who lost the first main event. They don't. Mr T rocked up to provide backup but the four ended up shaking hands.

Hall of Famers Bruno Sammartino, Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart, Dusty Rhodes, Bob Backlund and Harley Race were shown at ringside before the main event. Hart got the best reaction. Backlund looks the youngest. These are the sorts of things I pay attention to during segments like this.

WWE champions Randy Orton was played to the ring by Rev Theory for his main event title defence. He got very little reaction. The crowd still seemed very deflated about The Undertaker's loss. Batista did better: he brought genuine heat to the table. He didn't get a pyro though. For whatever reason it failed to go off. Batista’s response was to (ahem) deal with it. Bryan came out gingerly favouring his arm and managed to drag a "Yes!" chant from the fans. Even Bryan couldn’t fully lift the crowd’s spirits.

Bryan was kept on the sidelines selling for much of the match, encouraging fans to rally behind him when he did involve himself and casting him even more as the underdog of proceedings. When Orton and Batista were left to their own devices they provided the level of quality you'd expect. WWE, and fans, are very lucky Bryan got added to the match. Orton and Batista proved here that they would not have been capable of holding attention had they been in a singles match.

Around the halfway mark Bryan had Orton locked in a Yes lock until Triple H and Stephanie ran in through the crowd and yanked the referee from the ring. Batista planted Bryan with a Batista bomb as Scott Armstrong (the crooked referee who helped frame Bryan last September) showed up to count the fall. Despite being a crooked official he provided a fair count and then got knocked out of the ring by D-Bry. He huddled with Trips and Steph at ringside and absorbed a suicide dive. ‘The Game’ pulled out his sledge from under the ring but Bryan kicked him and grabbed it from him, then lamped him straight in the face with it, much to the approval of fans. A rollup on Batista was broken up by ‘The Apex Predator’ and then the two Evolution boys double teamed Bryan to get him out of the match.

Make them a tag team and give them this as a finish.
Trips was helped backstage as the announce tables were cleared by Orty and Batsy. The audience sang goodbye to him. Bryan was hoisted up onto one announce desk and hit with a picture perfect Batista bomb-RKO combo through another table by his opponents. 'The Animal' was the only man left standing after that. Medics showed up to carry out Bryan backstage as Batista and Orton started back up against one another. They didn't last long as Bryan fought his way off the stretcher and got back into the match, immediately getting pasted by 'The Viper'. An RKO got reversed into a Yes lock. That was broken by Batista. Seconds later Orton returned the favour when Batista found himself in the hold.

Bryan got wiped out by an awkward spear. Batista turned around into an RKO, but managed to kick out. Orton tried for a punt but got clocked with the running knee. Batista tossed Bryan out and tried to steal the pin but Orton kicked out (the first man to survive Bryan’s knee strike finisher). Seconds later the champ took a Batista bomb and rolled to the outside, leaving Bryan to scoot back in to nail the Royal Rumble winner with another running knee. Moments later Bootista tapped out to the Yes lock and Daniel Bryan became a three time WWE champion.

The beginning of Daniel Bryan's third WWE championship reign.
The celebration saw streamers and confetti showers pumped up into the air from strategically placed cannons. Bryan stood in the middle of it all, leading a “Yes!” chant and looking genuinely happy. It was the ending everybody wanted for the show: the underdog earning his way into the title match and proving that he belonged on top, overcoming months of storyline marginalisation.

The first and last matches of the main show did everything that could have been realistically asked of them. The Shield looked superb as they effortlessly squashed three veteran performers. The pre-show tag match was a lively tussle. Cesaro looked like a man to watch when he won the battle royal. There were, in short, things to enjoy at WrestleMania XXX.

It was one of the best entries in the show’s history. The best? I don’t think it was that good. The Divas match was a washout and the battle royal, despite a handful of dazzling moments, wasn’t much better. Cena v Wyatt was a good match marred by a depressing result. But it was the Lesnar versus Undertaker match that sealed the deal. After years of show stealing performances it was disappointing to see ‘The Dead Man’ stuck in such a sluggish, awkward outing here. That he lost only made it worse of course.

WrestleMania XXX got a lot right. There’s a chance it’s going to go down as The One Where ‘Taker Lost and Bryan Won. But I hope not. It deserves more because it did more.

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